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Human improvement

Play Pink Misty for Me

In Vanity Fair, the superb William Langewiesche ((Of whom I first became aware when I reviewed his American Ground.)) profiles a US Army sniper. About halfway through, as background, Langewiesche discusses the military’s response to claims that most frontline soldiers in the second world war did not fire their rifles:

[T]he Pentagon […] initiated a decades-long human-improvement campaign. By the Korean War, in the 1950s, surveys showed that fully half of the frontline riflemen who saw the enemy fired their weapons in response. In Vietnam, the number rose to 90 percent despite the unpopularity of the war and the low morale among troops.

It is a delightful invention of euphemistic bureaucratese, this human-improvement campaign — as though we must all agree that persuading humans to fire guns more often at other humans necessarily improves the first set of humans (if not the second, for obvious reasons).

Presumably, Langewiesche invented this phrase knowingly as a satirical nod to military unspeak. I initially assumed that it was real jargon, but the only other place google finds human-improvement campaign is in a random chat transcript. There are more results, however, for variants such as human-improvement processes (what “life coaches” will sell you), or human-improvement program (top: the “Church of Satan”!); as well as what Nature in 1910 called a “useful little book“, entitled Eugenics, the Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding.

What human improvements would you like to see, readers?

  1. 1  Tom  January 19, 2010, 8:55 am 

    Said human improvement entailed having soldiers train on human-shaped targets instead of bullseyes, the natural evolution of which being (apparently) having them play Counter-Strike, according to the (apparently) real science of “killology“.

    KILLOLOGY, Steven.

  2. 2  Steven  January 19, 2010, 9:54 am 

    Indeed. Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill!

  3. 3  Leinad  January 20, 2010, 1:05 pm 

    You can’t spell “killology” without LOL.

  4. 4  richard  January 21, 2010, 6:43 pm 

    Warrior Science Group sounds like it warrants unpacking, too.

  5. 5  lamentreat  January 23, 2010, 1:12 am 

    Langewiesche really is the business, isn’t he? There’s a piece he wrote about the “Estonia” ferry disaster, I think in the Atlantic maybe ten years ago, which was just astonishingly good.

    But I’m not so sure about there is a satirical side to him, either in this quote or in general. Although he rarely is explicit about his own standpoints, my sense is that he is quite conservative politically and in terms of social mores, and that he identifies quite strongly with institutions, especially the military and the police. And he doesn’t just identify with them in the abstract, but concretely and in detail, as they attempt to achieve something large and complicated.

    But there is a real depth of imagination to his identification, if that makes sense, which often makes him absolutely compelling to read.

  6. 6  lamentreat  January 23, 2010, 1:14 am 

    that’s “Atlantic” the magazine, not the ocean…

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